Keep partisanship off the NC elections board

Andy Penry
Andy Penry

As hard as Gov. Roy Cooper has fought to maintain control of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, you would assume he would be especially careful about the people he appoints to the board and how they conduct themselves in office.

But that appears not to be the case regarding the state board’s chairman, Andy Penry, In March, Cooper named eight new board members, including Penry, a Raleigh attorney and a Democrat. Whoever vetted him apparently didn’t ask what he thought about posting his political opinions on Twitter once in office.

Now that misstep has embarrassed Cooper and undercut his legal argument for why the board should have a majority of members from the governor’s party. To his credit, Penry resigned Saturday. He said he didn’t want the controversy over his Twitter posts to affect an investigation into voting irregularities in the 9th Congressional District race.

The social media controversy began after Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, sent a letter of complaint on Nov. 28 to the governor and Kim Strach, the board’s executive director. Hellwig called for Penry’s removal based on his partisan comments on Twitter. His complaint cites a state statute that forbids elections board members from publicly criticizing candidates or ballot issues.

On numerous occasions after assuming his board position, Penry tweeted critical comments about President Trump, Republican 2nd District Rep. George Holding, former Gov. Pat McCrory and proposed state constitutional amendments, including a Republican-backed proposal to change the nine-member board to one evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Penry’s tweets attached to the GOP complaint include these:

“Are you just now realizing that Trump is a despicable human being?”

“Pretty sure [Sen. Ted] Cruz is a borg.”

On whether Ted Cruz is the George Holding of Texas: “No, he is in better shape than George.”

On the proposed constitutional amendment establishing an eight-member bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement: “Just think of whether a neutered or hopelessly deadlocked board could protect the voters of our state.”

On Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh: “He is the wrong choice for the country. He was nominated for one reason and one reason only: to protect Donald Trump. And he knows it.”

On Trump supporters: “You can’t argue with these people, Doug. It’s like talking true believers out of Scientology.”

And finally, a now ironic tweet in response to a President Trump tweet: “What people see is you making a fool of yourself on Twitter. You are your own worst enemy.”

Hellwig wrote that Penry’s loose talk on social media “expresses clear public animus towards multiple declared and likely candidates who have appeared on North Carolina’s ballots, clear public disapproval of multiple ballot initiatives that have appeared on the 2018 ballot for North Carolina voters, and ample public disgust with anyone who does not share his partisan Democrat views. While he remains in office, no one can trust that he will work in good faith to oversee elections, rule on ethics opinions, or otherwise conduct public business without favor towards his political ends.”

Amen to that.

Penry initially pushed back against the GOP complaint. He issued a statement Thursday through his attorney contending that none of his comments opposed candidates on the ballot and “All of the statements made by me are statements protected by the First Amendment.”

As a staunch Democrat, Penry’s views aren’t surprising and he’s certainly entitled to express them. However, the First Amendment does not protect his position as chairman of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

For his next appointment to the board, the governor should chose someone who understands that public confidence in the even-handed administration of elections isn’t compatible with partisan bellowing on Twitter.